Attending your smear test is incredibly important for detecting early signs of cervical cancer, yet so many women don’t attend due to fear, embarrassment or a lack of knowledge surrounding the procedure. In fact, only 66% of young women attend their smears, which is a terribly worrying low number. To mark Cervical Cancer Awareness Day, Doctor Clare Morrison, GP and Medical Advisor at MedExpress, offers her 7 pieces of advice for getting over your ‘Smear Fear’.
1. Know what it’s for
“A common misconception is that cervical smears are looking for cancer. In fact this isn’t the case. They are designed to detect mild changes in the cells of the cervix that, if left untreated, could eventually, usually after several years, lead to cancer. That’s why it’s important to attend for regular smears as recommended by your GP. If treatment is recommended, it is generally very effective at stopping cancer from developing in the first place.”
2. Be prepared
“On the day of the smear by all means have a shower or a bath, as it will make you feel more confident and less self-conscious. But there is no need to wash more than you normally would, or use anything other than water and unscented soap. Wear clothing that is quick and easy to take off and on.”
3. Know what to expect when you arrive
“When you get there, you will be asked to sit down and talk to the clinician. They will want to know when your last period started (if applicable). They will also check to see if you are taking any hormones (contraception or HRT for example), and whether you have a coil, so they can check this at the same time.
Tell them if you have any concerns, such as vaginal soreness or discharge.
Do let them know if you are anxious about the procedure. It may help for you to have a look at the instruments first, and run through what they are going to do.”
4. Don’t be embarrassed
“It may seem embarrassing to you, but I can assure you that the clinician won’t be remotely embarrassed. It will just be part of their everyday work.
They won’t be fazed by shaved pubic hair or unshaved legs. They won’t bat an eyelid about any body piercings or tattoos either.”
5. Understanding the procedure
“The procedure is very quick, safe and painless. A plastic speculum is gently inserted into the vagina and opened a little so that the clinician can see the cervix (the part of the womb that is situated at the top of the vagina). There are a range of different sized speculums, depending on physical build and whether you have given birth, for example.
They will look for the ‘os’ (the opening in the cervix), and apply a small brush to it, gently turning the brush around a few times, to sweep some of the surface cells onto the brush.
Then they will transfer the cells to a pot of liquid, which is sent away to the lab for analysis.
All the instruments are disposable, and the clinician will wear disposable gloves, so there is absolutely no risk of contamination.
After the test you may get a little spotting of blood, but this is usually nothing to worry about.”
6. Be aware of possible problems
“It’s usually pretty straightforward, but there may be difficulty locating the cervix straight away. They may ask you to put your hands under the small of your back to tilt the pelvis a little. A
different sized speculum may be needed. Occasionally the cervix can’t be located at all, in which case, another clinician, such as a doctor, may be asked to do it instead.
Sometimes medical problems not directly related to the cervix are detected, such as vaginal thrush. This shouldn’t stop the smear being taken, and treatment can be recommended or prescribed.”
7. The results
“There are three possible outcomes. The most likely is that the smear was normal, and you don’t need to do anything until it is due again.
Sometimes the smear is ‘inadequate’. This shouldn’t be confused with an abnormal smear. It simple means that they didn’t get enough suitable cells for testing, and it will need to be repeated.
Finally, it could be an abnormal result. This very rarely means you have cancer. It is much more likely that changes have been detected, that require either closer monitoring, or treatment at the hospital clinic.”